Former President Pranab Mukherjee has probably delivered a hundred speeches like the one he read out on Thursday, covering everything from India’s civilisational past to the plurality that underpins its Constitution. The only unusual thing about Thursday’s speech was the location: the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva organisation whose ideology stands in stark opposition to many of the secular, pluralistic principles that form the foundation of the same Constitution to which Mukherjee was referring.

Mukherjee took the stage on Thursday after days of controversy over his decision to acccept an invitation to be the guest of honour at the RSS’s Tritiya Varsh concluding ceremony – essentially a graduation event for RSS workers after a three-year course. The RSS is at the head of the family of Hindutva organisations of which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a member. The former president’s appearance was noteworthy in part because Mukherjee has been a life-long member of the Congress, which has always considered the RSS a communal organisation that aims to polarise India and marginalise minorities.

But it was also significant because, despite some of the country’s top politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of chief ministers being members of the Sangh, it remains an organisation somewhat out of the mainstream. This is partly by choice – the RSS claims to be a social organisation, not a political one, and has always been secretive about some aspects of its existence. But it is also because of its history in opposing the modern, secular Indian state, as well as its connections to the men responsible for the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi.

Graduation speech

In the run-up to the speech there was debate about whether Mukherjee should have accepted the invite at all, with some contending that his presence alone conferred legitimacy on the organisation. But there was also speculation about what the life-long Congressman would say. Would he praise the RSS, despite having ordered investigations into its actions in the past? Would he criticise it for dividing Indian society?

In the event, Mukherjee delivered a speech that would have been familiar at any graduation ceremony. He announced that he wanted to talk about the nation, nationalism and patriotism. The former president then launched into a quick overview of Indian history, covering the Gupta and Maurya empires, the “Muslim invaders” and the British Raj, before offering a lecture on pluralism and secularism.

This portion of the speech was noteworthy because of the context: Mukherjee mentioned Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, among others, as models for the graduating swayamsevaks to follow. Both of those leaders helped lay the foundations for a pluralistic, secular India that is at odds with the ideology of the RSS, which believes in a majoritarian Hindu nation.

Civics lesson

Mukherjee also lectured the RSS about peace, non-violence and harmony, saying that democracy is a gift and insisting that the soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. “Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us,” he said. “It is our composite culture which makes us into a nation. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one entity. You are young, disciplined, well trained and athletic. Please wish for peace, harmony and happiness. Our motherland is asking for that, our motherland deserves that.”

As with the references to Gandhi and Nehru, this is material that would be familiar in any Indian civics textbook but out of place among an RSS gathering, where one is more likely to hear rabble-rousing rants about Hindus being under siege and majoritarian dog-whistling. Significantly, Mukherjee did not praise or even mention the RSS in his overview of Indian history and examination of nationalism, although he had called the organisation’s founder a “great son of India” earlier in the day.

Although the speech itself was a pointed defence of pluralism, it did not come with any specific criticism of the RSS. Given that Mukherjee’s oratorial skills are somewhat limited, the speech is more likely to be remembered because of the context rather than the content. That context includes the speech that came right before his. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, also spoke of India and nationalism, but put forward a vision of the country that is much more homogenous, and predicated on the idea of India as a “vishwaguru”, a teacher to the world.

Bhagwat’s speech

Where Mukherjee spoke of India’s deficiencies, Bhagwat praised the RSS role in Indian society and what it hoped to do. In a clear nod to the debate over the former president’s appearance and what he was likely to say, Bhagwat said that the RSS had been around before Mukherjee and it will continue to exist even after. The RSS chief insisted that his organisation works for all people, not just Hindus, but made no acknowledgment of the current climate of hatred and violence that Mukherjee later alluded to. Mukherjee’s speech was centred around the Indian Constitution. Bhagwat made no mention of it.

The irony of the entire event might still be that it was the presence of a life-long Congress leader that brought attention to an annual RSS function. It took Mukherjee’s attendance to confer legitimacy on an organisation whose members are already essentially running the country. As BJP leader and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari put it “Mukherjee’s acceptance of the invitation is a good start. Political untouchability is not good.”

Where do things stand after the speech? The RSS has gained some more legitimacy from the visit of a former President. But Mukherjee’s situation might be more interesting: going into an election year in which the Congress intends to highlight the challenges posed by the RSS’s ideology, the former president has charted a pointedly separate path away from the direction that the Nehru-Gandhi family would like him to take. The impression remains that Mukherjee still has political ambitions, despite having been India’s first citizen. Having acknowledged the RSS, but also obliquely criticised it on its own turf, is Mukherjee building an image that could be leveraged politically if elections in 2019 do not deliver a clear result?